Can we know anything about the past?
Answering an agnostic’s radical skepticism
A review of Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart Ehrman
It’s that time of year again! Christians worldwide are preparing to celebrate the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus in a matter of weeks. And skeptics, hoping to cash in and maybe even cause a few weak Christians to abandon the faith, are publishing their books, badly researched journalistic pieces, and even releasing movies to shipwreck any unsuspecting Christians they can.
Bart Ehrman’s latest popular-level work, Jesus Before the Gospels, attempts and fails to show that recent studies on memory prove that the Gospels cannot be true memories—at the most, they capture just the gist of who Jesus is, among many distorted (i.e. untrue) memories.
Anyone who has read Ehrman’s books knows just about what they should expect. Ehrman belongs to the radical school of skepticism. He brings an arsenal of unbelieving liberal scholarship, appeals to skeptical authorities, and presenting ‘old news’ as if it were devastating for Christians, despite many believing Christian scholars who see this information as presenting no tension for evangelical believers.
A book by a non-Christian isn’t automatically without value just because he’s not a Christian. For instance, in my review of Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counterforgery, I noted that it had a very useful discussion of how forgery worked in the case of the pseudepigraphal materials. So when we criticize an unbeliever’s book, it can’t just be because he’s an unbeliever. He has to be wrong about what he’s talking about. Unsurprisingly, in his latest book Ehrman is wrong a lot of the time, and where he’s right, he’s right about things that are utterly basic and unsurprising to anyone who has even the most basic training in the New Testament documents. Christians today need to be able to refute Ehrman’s laughable errors, so we hope this review helps you defend your faith.
Ehrman’s basic thesis is that memory, even when it comes to eyewitness testimony, isn’t terribly accurate when it comes to the details. While we can rely on our memory to give us the basic ‘gist’ of what happened, when we recall things that happened years or decades before, the details we remember, even when we’re very certain of those details, may not be correct.
Of course, the Gospels were written decades after the resurrection of Jesus, so does that mean they are prone to the same errors, and are the variations between the Gospels proof of that? First, we have to come to the question as Christians and recognize that Scripture is not merely a human book, but a divinely inspired one. Jesus told the disciples, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The unbeliever doesn’t believe this because he doesn’t believe that the Holy Spirit exists—big surprise. However, while it is reasonable for the believer to cite the Holy Spirit’s role in inspiration, Ehrman’s skepticism about the ability of the disciples to remember the details of Jesus’ life ignores some important facts that would impact our judgments about the accuracy of the memories.
Ehrman assumes that there’s no way that the Gospels were written by either the Apostles or their direct associates, and he dates them absolutely as late as possible (but even he must admit they were written in the first century). However, there are elements, such as accurate recollections about the geography of Palestine and the layout of first-century Jerusalem, which make it likely they were written by people with knowledge of what first-century Judea and Galilee looked like. Compare for instance, with the Letter of Aristeas which was written perhaps a few generations before Jesus by someone who clearly had never visited Jerusalem—his work is filled with errors. The geographical and political details that the authors get right are hallmarks of authenticity that Ehrman never considers.
But even if the authors were apostles, wouldn’t decades degrade their memories (leaving aside, for the sake of argument, the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit)? Not necessarily. The parables and teachings of Jesus preserved in the Gospels are short and pithy for the most part, and use imagery and other devices that would make them easy to remember. Plus, Jesus would have likely repeated a given teaching many times as He moved from place to place.
What about the discrepancies between the Gospels? Actually, Ehrman never really cites a deal-breaking error; he just assumes there are discrepancies. In fact, the sort of discrepancies cited in the Gospels are the sort you would expect from people recollecting events from decades before, for different purposes. The Gospel writers were not attempting to write modern biographies, but bioi, the ancient almost-equivalent. There was a concern for historical accuracy, but it’s more along the lines of a painted portrait than a photograph; there’s a certain latitude for authorial intent and artistry in crafting the account, while remaining within the bounds of the historical information about the person.
But aren’t the Gospels only a few of the many documents claiming to tell us about Jesus, and aren’t some of those accounts widely divergent from each other and the Gospel accounts? Well, yes. But Christians have always known some teachings about Jesus were false, and they made judgments between documents that were judged to be trustworthy and actually authored by eyewitnesses (those documents make up our New Testament today), and the ones that were judged to be false. Even Paul and John combated false teachers—teachers who were presenting a false Jesus. So it was never the case in Christianity that we had this egalitarian “anyone’s Jesus goes” mentality. Whether it was true or not mattered, and it mattered very early on. And we can tell that these judgments were spot-on; they kept the four canonical Gospels while rejecting the ‘flashier’ Gospels that feature things such as the boy Jesus striking his playmates dead and receiving worship from dragons. Ehrman completely ignores this historical reality. This lack of understanding permeates the book, and really limits its usefulness.
There are some other elements of the book worth mentioning; Ehrman is fond of the appeal to authority of “critical scholars”—by which he means “unbelieving scholars”. Jesus Before the Gospels is a popular-level book, so Ehrman plays a bit fast and loose with the footnotes in places where we might like to know where he’s getting some of his information. There is a lot of interesting information about studies on memory, but it’s largely irrelevant when we’re discussing whether the Gospels are actually trustworthy accounts of Jesus’ life because Ehrman comes to the subject with so many wrong assumptions.
Jesus Before the Gospels is intended to make Christians doubt the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament. But a little critical thought on your part will not only encourage your faith, but help you to be more confident to share the truth about the Bible.